Blasts from the past: iPhone apps of the week

This week's apps are a classic gory fighting game and an arcade basketball remake that might already be one of my favorite games of 2011.


I grew up playing video games and was part of the era of going to arcades and dropping quarter after quarter into my favorite games. Back then, if you would have told me that one day I could play the same games on a mobile phone I would probably have said, "I doubt it, and who would want to lug one of those giant things around anyway?" In the '80s, mobile phones were huge. In other words, I would never have believed it.

Now, there are hundreds of games in the iTunes App Store that bring old classics to your touch screen. Not all of them are perfect, certainly. Sometimes the controls don't translate well to the touch screen, for example. But even with mediocre controls, it's still fun to be able to play a game you loved as a kid while you're commuting to work or in between classes.

This week, two games were released that were favorites of mine in the arcades, and both work relatively well on the touch screen. My question to you is, What games from the old days should be made for iOS? What games should not? Let's talk about it in the comments.

This week's apps are a classic gory fighting game and an arcade basketball remake that might already be one of my favorite games of 2011.

Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3
The graphics look great on both the iPhone 4 Retina display and the iPad. (Credit: Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET)

Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 for iPhone (99 cents) and iPad ($4.99) brings the legendarily gory and addictive fighting game to iOS, and it mostly hits the mark with only a couple of problems. What was formerly a smash hit (and somewhat controversial) stand-up arcade game went through a complete facelift for the iPhone version. Gone are the stop-motion character animations from the original arcade game, replaced with beautiful 3D animations that recreate all your favorite characters' fighting moves. For the most part, this game looks and plays great, as long as you can get past the limited character set and the lack of tactile controls.

Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 lets you choose from nine characters, with two you can unlock by beating the game twice in the Arcade mode on different skill levels. While the characters included work great, characters with more complex animation requirements (like Cyrax and Kabal) were not included in the iOS version of the game. Hopefully EA will add these characters in later versions of the game, but perhaps they are waiting for a future, more powerful iOS device.

Even without the remaining characters, Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 is a great game. The control system includes a directional pad on the left and punch, kick, run, and block buttons on the right. What's interesting here is you can use the original six-button layout from the arcade version or you can use a modified control system that saves you from the difficult joystick motions required for some of the more complex fighting moves. (Instead of a complex set of commands, you simply hit the Special Attack button and a direction to use a character's signature moves.) While the purist in me initially thought this made the game too easy, I began to appreciate not having to remember the complex moves and just seeing the cool results.

The Mortal Kombat franchise has always been controversial for its violent "Fatality" moves, and you'll get to do them all in the iOS version. Along with the modified control system giving you a break on the more complex moves, you also can pause the game at any time to see a list of moves and special attacks for your character, as well as Fatality moves, Babalities and Friendship. While some fans of the original game may think this makes the special moves too easy, fight game novices will appreciate being able to jump right into the game and use every advantage at their disposal.

You get a few game modes to play, including Arcade, Survival, and Local multiplayer. The Arcade mode challenges you to fight your way to the top of a group of random opponents with four different difficulty levels adding extra challenge along with more opponents to fight through at harder difficulties. Survival lets you take on an endless stream of opponents to see how long you can last with one character. Local Multiplayer lets you play against a friend over a shared Wi-Fi connection. There is no online multiplayer at this time, but perhaps that is another feature that will come in later versions.

Overall, Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 is a beautiful game and plenty of fun in spite of its various issues. If you are a fan of the franchise, you will enjoy being able to bring the game with you on your iOS device and the graphics look great on both the iPhone and iPad. It's important to note that this game is probably not for kids with a high level of animated violence and some pretty gruesome finishing moves.

Monta Ellis sizes up the defense before taking it to the bucket. (Credit: Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET)

NBA Jam is an updated and faithful recreation of probably the most popular standup arcade basketball game of all time. For those who never went through several dollars in quarters at the local arcade playing this fun classic many years ago, NBA Jam is not your standard five-on-five simulation you see on consoles. This game is all about two-vs.-two high-flying dunk basketball, where just about every play is worthy of a highlight reel.

The control system for NBA Jam on offense includes a directional pad on the lower left part of the screen, and pass, shoot, and speed boost buttons on the lower right. On defense you have the D-pad, but your options are steal, jump (for blocks), and speed boost buttons.

Each team of the full 30-team NBA lineup uses the currently biggest stars on each team as your default starters. But the game gives you a couple of options for other players on the team should you decide to go with a different strategy. You also decide which player you control on your chosen team, but be aware that you will control that player the entire game--there is no player switching in NBA Jam as you have on consoles.

The gameplay in NBA Jam is excellent--just like the arcade classic. You get a couple of game mode options including a standard exhibition game so you can start playing immediately in a single game, and a longer classic campaign mode in which you play games against all 30 teams for the championship. NBA Jam also has a number of achievements you can earn--all of which are listed in the Challenges section.

Probably best of all for those of us who played the original arcade game, NBA Jam offers unlockable classic players for each team. Some expansion teams will only let you play as the mascot, but most teams have classic players many NBA fans will remember from the original arcade game. Once it's unlocked you can play past greats Magic Johnson and James Worthy from the Los Angeles Lakers, Dominique Wilkins and Kenny Smith from the Hawks, and Tim Hardaway and Chris Mullin from the Golden State Warriors, as examples. Also, to add to the nostalgia, EA has used the same announcer from the original game who still says "Boom Shakalaka!" among other things when you make a particularly nasty dunk.

Our only problem with this otherwise solid iOS game is that it doesn't include a multiplayer mode, because part of the fun in the classic arcade game was smack-talking as you dunked on your friends. We hope later releases will add online multiplayer games, but even just the ability to play locally would be a huge improvement because this game needs to be played head-to-head.

Overall, even if you just play this single-player game with the current rosters, NBA Jam has enough excitement and challenge with four skill settings to keep you coming back for more. Anyone who played the original arcade game, or anyone with even a passing interest in basketball or sports games, will love this game.

About Jason Parker

Jason Parker has been at CNET for more than 13 years. He is the Senior Editor in charge iOS software and has become an expert reviewer of the software that runs on each new Apple device. He now spends most of his time covering Apple iOS releases and third-party apps.